Darwin's Legacy

Darwin's Legacy: Evolution and Faith

On the 150th anniversary of the publication of On the Origin of Species, and the 200th anniversary of Charles Darwin's birth, St. Thomas's Anglican Church presented a day-long symposium exploring the life, work and legacy of Darwin. His revolutionary theory of evolution not only transformed the scientific world, but also sparked a debate about the relationship between faith and reason, which continues to this day.

The Science and Faith lecture series looks at the processes and ideas of science within the context of faith, and began in 2008 with the Ways of Knowing symposium.

Debates between faith and science, especially those sparked by evolution, pit faith against reason, and suppose that each offers an exclusive world view. With this lecture series, a dialogue is created, allowing us to view the world through the eyes of both faith and reason. By recognizing and acknowledging that each has its own way of knowing the Universe, we can transcend these artificial boundaries often set as a cultural construct, and enter the path to wisdom.

Darwin's Legacy consisted of talks by three invited speakers, punctuated by extremely insightful theological responses by Fr. David Neelands.

Ian McGregor, astronomer and head science teacher in the Education Department at the Royal Ontario Museum, spoke on The Life and Work of Charles Darwin. Charles Darwin was born in 1809, journeyed around the world from 1831 to 1836, had his first ideas about natural selection in 1844 and published On the Origin of Species in 1859.

The book was instantly controversial, as it challenged assumptions about creation, life, and ultimately the place of humanity in the Universe. The new scientific ideas quickly became a symbol for a change in cultural values, leading to much of the existing clash between science and faith. However, as noted by Fr. Neelands, concepts of change, and the recognition that the Universe is not fixed, were not new to theology at the time of Darwin.

Another interesting question raised by Ian was: Why is Darwin singled out? A common perception is that Darwin alone is responsible for the ideas behind evolution, yet he did not work in isolation, and rather was a part of the scientific milieu of the time. He, unlike other authors of scientific "revolutions," has been isolated long after the scientific evidence has been established, and has become an iconic symbol for the controversy behind science and faith. The 2003 exhibition on human evolution at the American History Museum presented all the scientific evidence supporting evolution, but did not mention Darwin. Nearly 200 years after his death, he still remained a lightning rod.

Ivan Semeniuk, science journalist in residence at the Dunlap Institute, Department of Astronomy, U of T, formerly at New Scientist magazine and the Discovery Channel, spoke on Treading the Landscape: Real Time Encounters with Evolution. At the beginning of his talk, we were shown a digital recreation of life from a computer code from Michigan State University; all the physics, chemistry and biology of evolution were incorporated in this code, which allowed us to witness a reconstruction of evolution in real time. A sample of bacteria is placed in adverse conditions and allowed to evolve according to random mutations and natural selection. The adaption over 40,000 generations was seen, with increased fitness and resilience to their environment. With this demonstration, Ivan wanted to emphasize the clear scientific proof for evolution, much of which has been amassed in the latter half of the 20th century, with breakthroughs in genetics and understanding of DNA.

Ivan also spoke on ways that evolution has become a symbol for larger questions. As Darwin relates mankind to other creatures, humanity becomes devalued. In extreme rationalist views, Creation ultimately becomes unnecessary. These sentiments have driven a backlash, and fuelled the debate between evolution and creationism in the U.S., from the Scopes Trial in 1925 to arguments for Intelligent Design in the 1990s. Darwinism has become symbolic for materialism, a devaluation of human life, moral anarchy, and an attack on believer culture. Fr. Neelands spoke to the shocks between science and faith in the 20th century as reactions between how we intellectually understand things versus how we emotionally relate to things. We need to forge relationships among different ways of knowing, preserving rather than fracturing community. Showing humility and acknowledging the wisdom of the other side takes us a step closer to overcoming these differences as paradoxical issues.

Amanda Sparkman, a postdoctoral fellow at Trent University, spoke on Faith and Evolution: A Biologist Reflects on Creation. Amanda, who was raised as an Evangelical Christian, became an evolutionary biologist; her thesis work was on the habitats of snakes. Amanda discussed important questions raised by the change in world view brought about by evolution: Will abandoning belief in a seven-day creation lead us to doubt the miracles of the Gospels? What does it mean for humans to be created in the image of God if they were not created apart from animals? Where is our sense morality if we are "just" beasts? Where is God in "evolution by natural selection"? How can God create through "random" processes? Evolution is seen as a threat to faith. The Seven-Day Creationist presentation of evolution is that it is meaningless, with no sense of directionality, and no need for God.

She then spoke about three evolutionary biologists who have no problem with the integration of faith and reason. Asa Gray, a 19th-century botanist, felt that natural selection is the physical manifestation of God's active participation in creation. Theodosius Dobzhansky, an American geneticist working in the mid to late 20th century, felt that God has not pre-determined creation; it comes into being freely and blindly, groping towards His call through the process of natural selection. Conway Morris, a modern palaeontologist, feels that general biological properties, including ultimately intelligent beings, were in the cards since the beginning. Evolution is the interplay between constraints of design and freedom in the process of natural selection.

Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?
Tell me, if you have understanding.
Who determined its measurements - surely you know!
Or who stretched the line upon it?
On what were its bases sunk,
or who laid its cornerstone
when the morning stars sang together
and all the heavenly beings shouted for joy?
 Job 38: 4-7

Robin Kingsburgh